Building the Arc with Bristol A Cappella

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The warm-up is going swimmingly...The warm-up is going swimmingly...On Saturday I went down to help Bristol A Cappella with their preparation for the mixed chorus context at the British Association of Barbershop Singers Convention later this month. They were going to be working with Performance specialist Kirsty Williams on Sunday, so I could focus on musical and vocal issues, knowing that she would bring their focus back out onto their audience the next day.

(Of course I find it hard to talk about an interesting chord without considering what it will do to a listener, and there were places where choreography could conveniently be leveraged to help vocal technique. But the generalisation stands that there were things I could safely put to one side knowing that Kirsty would have them in her sights the next day.)

A theme that emerged in several contexts was directing surface energy into deeper, longer-range processes. ‘Energy’ in this context is both a literal description of type and extent of muscular engagement, and a metaphor for our sense of musical impetus. In both senses we found ways to move from pedalling quite hard in 2nd gear to cruising along in 4th. Several times people remarked that a change made things easier - a sure sign that your energy is being used more strategically and efficiently.

The physical dimension saw us relaxing the jaw and tongue to articulate wordy passages with much smaller mouth movements. These passages had been struggling to stay together, and the singers had responded by trying harder. Becoming gentler but more precise with the lyrics not only cleaned up the synchronisation, but produced a more continuous resonance that allowed the music to flow and carry them along more readily. We experienced a similar dynamic in their MD Iain’s conducting gestures, in which a clean, minimalist approach provided a much clearer visual signal to coordinate around, while removing residual anxiety along with the residual tension.

The musical dimension saw us exploring musical form and rhythmic structures. Their ballad is in a 12/8 metre, and they are performing it in tempo, and at the start of the day the dotted-crotchet pulse was tending to overshadow everything else. You could intuit all kinds of interesting ideas for musical shaping that weren’t coming through clearly because they were hidden behind the rhythmic drive.

The first task was to adapt Iain’s gestures from an ictus that throbbed to one that stroked, in order to let the melody through. He has the skill to use traditional patterns flexibly to shape a phrase, but because the pulse points were over-characterised, people (including him) weren’t noticing the subtleties that lay between them.

We then turned our attention to the arc of the form. The overall song is in an AABA form, with the B section clearly marked out as climactic – by tessitura, harmonic interest, and lyrical content. The chorus clearly understood the way this section acted as an expressive focal point, but they needed to avoid building too big too early if these intentions were to shine through.

Interestingly, each section also had a 4-phrase structure that built to a focal point in the third, and on this smaller scale we had the same challenge – how to bring out the interest and detail without getting too big too early.

It is useful to thing of these structures in terms of the Rule of Three, the classic structure for both comedy and rhetoric: ‘Friends, Romans, Countryman’. The second may escalate compared to the first, but the punchline – and therefore the key local of attention - will always be on the third. If your build from first to second phrase is anything more than subtle, you will give the game away too early.

Shaping the build thus needs the same kind of concave outline that Henry Coward recommends for shaping a crescendo: the gradient needs to increase as you go on, rather than plateau. And it’s interesting to find these same structures operating within the phrase, within the section, and across the form as a whole: the piece has a kind of fractal structure.

We also did some cool stuff with hypermetre that would take too much space to write about here, but I can point back to a previous exploration of the ideas on another occasion. (Including this link specifically for Jon who asked if I’d written about it before. And the original source of the concepts we played with were from Cooper & Meyer’s Rhythmic Structure of Music.)

A particular challenge of this kind of arc is how to handle the final A section after your climactic moment. How do you reduce energy (volume/intensity), without diluting impact? In one of those moments of serendipitous magic, Marcus cracked a joke at just the right moment to give us a vivid new metaphor for how to handle this. Trying to explain this is no doubt going to sound overcomplicated and not very funny, but it’s worth it for the metaphor.

The B section finished with the word ‘fly’, and we had given some attention to how the singers were finishing the word; ‘Well done,’ I said after a couple of goes, ‘you really nailed the fly.’ And then, as I was drawing breath to address the question of how to keep the vibrancy in their tone as they came down into the final section, Marcus made everyone laugh by miming catching a fly from the air in front of him.

If you imagine holding a live fly in your hand, feeling it buzz against your palm, that’s exactly the kind of inner energy a quieter section that follows a musical climax needs. You don’t want to put muscle into it (or you’ll squash your imaginary fly), but it’s a very active, alert state (for both you and the fly). The vocal tone it produces is quiet but compelling. And then four bars later there’s a clear moment to open your hand and let it fly away, and the voice soars with it.

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